Cats are incredible creatures, and with a 12-15 year lifespan, it’s important to know how to care for your cat to give them the longest, fullest life possible.
In the first-ever My Lovely Feline Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks discussed general feline wellness, from when to visit the vet and how to tell if your cat’s sick to vaccines and common diseases.
In this article, we’ll share important takeaways and a Q&A from the feline wellness discussion, giving you advice and tips on what to look for as your cat ages.
My Lovely Feline content contributor Elizabeth Ann was also on the call to give advice on feline behavior as it relates to wellness.
Note: We host these interactive calls exclusively with some of our customers for free—every single week 🙌
Wellness Exams for Your Cat
When you first get a cat, regardless of age, it’s important to visit a vet for an initial exam and to establish a relationship. Typically, you’ll want to take your cat to the vet once a year, and if they’re healthy, they shouldn’t need any additional testing. When they reach about 6-7 years of age, most vets recommend annual blood work.
The exception would be cats that go outdoors on a regular basis should periodically be checked for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV) since they’re exposed to other feral cats.
Keep in mind cats are masters of disguise and very good at hiding pain, illness, or other ailments, and blood work is sometimes the best way to determine there is an issue early on.
Once they reach 12 years of age, your vet may recommend visits every 6 months. If your cat gets stressed going to the vet, you may be able to do more spaced appointments, incorporate an anti-anxiety med for the visits, or even have a mobile vet come to your home.
Discuss the options with your vet so you can strike a balance between keeping your cats' (and your) stress low, while also keeping an eye on their health.
Vaccines Cats Need
In the U.S., each state has different specific requirements. You may need to research your specific state or country to find out what vaccines are required by law.
Rabies is the primary vaccine that’s most often required. It comes in a 1-year or 3-year formulation. Rabies in domestic cats and dogs is very rare but still, every year, there are cats and dogs that test positive for it.
Even though it seems like something you don’t have to worry about, it’s still out there and you should protect your cat from it.
Cats that go outside and are exposed to wildlife are most at risk, but indoor cats can still get exposed. Bats are the top carriers of rabies in the U.S. If a bat gets into a home, a cat will see it as prey and want to play with it, and could be exposed to rabies.
The FVRCP is a combo vaccine that protects against various viruses cats can get.
The FVR stands for feline viral rhinotracheitis. Another name is feline herpes virus or a kitty cold.
Th C stands for calicivirus. It’s a respiratory virus similar to FVR, but it can also cause oral disease, most commonly ulcers in the mouth.
THe P stands for panleukopenia, also known as feline distemper. It has a high rate of fatality in unvaccinated cats and kittens.
Although the vaccine is normally given annually, it’s been shown to offer protection for up to three years. After a kitten gets their boosters and then an annual shot, discuss a vaccination schedule with your vet. You may be able to decrease the amount of times your cat is vaccinated because you want them protected, but not over vaccinated.
The 3rd main vaccine that’s given for cats is the feline leukemia virus vaccine. If your cat lives outside, it’s a good idea to get the vaccine, but if they’re indoor with no exposure to outdoor cats, it’s okay to skip it.
Feline Injection Site Sarcoma
Historically, there’s concern with vaccines causing tumors at the site of injection. Newer vaccines are manufactured in a way that drastically reduces the chance of tumors, but they still can occur.
For this reason, administration guidelines have changed from giving vaccines in the back of the neck to as far down a back leg as possible.
New recommendations even suggest giving it in the tail. This way, if a tumor develops, the leg or tail can be easily amputated and the cat will be fine.
Flea & Parasite Prevention
Cats that go outside or are exposed to other pets that go outside should be kept on flea prevention in the spring, summer, and fall, and sometimes even the winter. Fleas love to live on cats.
A dog can bring in a flea and then it takes up residence on the cat and lays eggs in crevices in the home. Before you know it, you have a flea problem.
If you notice a cat has fleas, be sure to give the cat flea prevention medication as soon as possible, vacuum frequently (even if you have hardwood), and empty the bag outside to get rid of all the eggs.
Parasites are another thing to consider. If your cat goes outside, you’ll want to keep them on a regular dewormer to prevent parasites. Indoor cats don’t need a dewormer unless you notice parasites in their stool or they have a stool sample that’s tested positive for parasites.
Although not common, cats can contract heartworm disease and it can be deadly. It’s transmitted by mosquitoes, which can get inside your home. For these reasons, you may want to consider a flea prevention treatment that’s also a dewormer and protects against heartworms.
A Few Notes on Food
It’s extremely important to feed your cat food that’s specifically formulated for cats. Avoid giving them dog food because cats need specific amino acids that dogs don’t.
In Dr. Brooks’ view, dry food and wet food are both okay to give your cat. You can make your decision based on your cat’s specific health needs. If your cat chews dry food instead of swallowing the pieces whole, it can help keep the teeth cleaner.
On the other hand, canned food has a lot of moisture and is a great way to keep cats hydrated, especially older cats who tend not to drink enough water. Wet food can also help with urinary disease, again, because of the hydration aspect.
Common Medical Conditions in Cats
Next, let’s discuss the most common medical conditions found in cats. Although it’s more common to see them in senior cats, most diseases know no age.
Urinary problems are probably the most common challenges cats (and their owners) face. Sometimes, the issues are behavioral.
A smell they don’t like, feeling stressed, or even seeing a stray cat outside can be enough to cause your cat to have problems with their litter box. Other times, the issues are medical. Either way, never ignore when your cat:
- Pees outside of the litter box
- Goes to box more frequently
- Yowls when in the litter box
Take your cat to the vet to check for a urinary tract infection (UTI), crystals, or a blockage. Male cats, especially if they’re overweight, are more likely to get a mucus plug in their urethra which prevents them from peeing and is life-threatening without treatment.
Upper Respiratory Infection
An upper respiratory infection (URI) is most often a kitty cold caused by the feline herpes virus. Symptoms include congestion, runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. All cats are exposed to feline herpes at some point in their lives, and when healthy, their immune system keeps it at bay.
Environmental stress or the presentation of another illness often decreases the effectiveness of their immune system and cause the herpes virus to come out. Although the FVRCP vaccine helps with feline herpes, it’s sort of like the flu vaccine for humans – the virus mutates and there are different strains, so it doesn’t guarantee a cat won’t get sick from feline herpes.
Just like a human cold, a kitty cold is viral and has to run its course. The most important things are to keep your cat hydrated, eating, and keep their nose and eyes clear.
If your cat has the symptoms of a kitty cold and isn’t improving, they may need antiviral meds and subcutaneous fluids to help them fight it, or they could have a secondary bacterial infection, and need antibiotics to fully clear it.
Also, Persians and cat breeds with flat faces can have a harder time with colds. Talk to your vet about the best course of action if your cat’s cold isn’t improving.
Chronic Kidney Disease
Many cats don’t drink enough water, making kidney disease common. Kidney disease is detectable with blood work. Cats may not show symptoms, but if they do, these could be indicators:
- Increased thirst
- Increased frequency and amount of urination (you may notice you have to scoop litter box more than usual)
- Decreased appetite, nausea or vomiting
- Weight loss (especially in later stages)
The good news is cats handle kidney disease very well compared to dogs and can live with it for years. Medications, special diets, and subcutaneous fluids can help manage the disease. There isn’t a cure, but specialty hospitals are doing transplants and dialysis.
Older cats are prone to getting an overactive thyroid, called hyperthyroidism. Symptoms are similar to kidney disease and include:
- Increased metabolism
- Weight loss
- Eating tons of food and still losing weight
- Increased thirst and urination
Hyperthyroidism is a treatable condition. Pills can be given every day or transdermal meds can be rubbed on the inside of the ear. Prescription food is available and can regulate thyroid levels. Radioiodine treatments are an expensive option, but actually cures cats with the disease.
Cancer is more common in older cats, but it can be found in younger cats. Lymphoma is the most common type. Since cancer doesn’t always show up in blood work, it can be hard to diagnose. Additional diagnostics may be necessary, like X-rays, ultrasounds, or biopsies. Some symptoms you can keep an eye out for include:
- Significant weight loss
- Eating more or less than usual
- Vomiting or diarrhea
Treatments can include surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
Diabetes is more of a risk for overweight or obese cats, which get type II. Symptoms to look for include:
- Drastic weight loss
- Increased thirst
- Increased urination
While early stage diabetes can be managed with diet alone, other cats need insulin injections for the rest of their life. Incredibly, some cats can go into remission, but there is always a chance they come out of remission and require injections again.
How can you tell if a cat isn’t feeling well?
Dr. Brooks: Every cat is different, but they’re all creatures of habit and like routine. Your cat’s routine may be to come down for breakfast and sleep all day or be more active during the day and take a nap in the afternoon.
They may normally love to eat but start picking at their food, stop eating, or stop drinking as much. If any part of their behavior is off, there might be something wrong.
Symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea can indicate a problem. Since urinary issues are so common, going to the litter box a lot or going outside the litter box could also be an indication something is wrong.
I have a cat with very long fur who doesn’t like to be brushed, but it gets matted if I don’t brush her. Is there any specific brush you can recommend?
Dr. Books: You could take her to a groomer. Also, the brush that My Lovely Feline sells is softer and a rubbery material that’s different from a wire one, so she might appreciate that more. Another brush you could try is the Furminator.
My cats have hairballs. How often do I need to brush them?
Dr. Brooks: I’d brush them on a daily basis if they’ll let you and try giving Greenies treats.
Elizabeth: I have some reinforcement suggestions around brushing. If your cat likes tubed pate, do a couple brushes, give him some pate, brush again and give him some more pate. The goal is to try to get him more comfortable with being brushed. I like the tubed pate because it tends to have a strong scent that attracts even older cats.
My 3-year-old British Shorthair isn’t interested in drinking water. She eats a mix of canned and frozen raw. She seems to be going to the bathroom enough, but could it cause a problem later?
Dr. Brooks: It could cause a problem as she starts to get older, but she may be getting a lot of moisture through her food since she’s eating canned and frozen raw. I’d still like to see her drinking some water. You could try different fountains with varying water flows and sprouts to see what she likes. Also, try to monitor more closely to see if she’s drinking at all.
My cat has hyperthyroidism and she’s hard to pill. Do you have any suggestions?
Dr. Brooks: You could talk to your vet to see if the meds can be compounded so they can be rubbed on the inside of the ear. That might be easier to administer.
What’s the proper weight for cats?
Dr. Brooks: It depends on the cat and their body size. Some cats are bigger boned, so 15 lbs. might be ideal. For a smaller cat, 8-10 lbs. Is better. The best way to tell if your cat is the right weight is to put your hands on their sides – you should be able to feel their ribs. The little tummy pooch is normal.
Keep in mind it’s hard to get weight off adult indoor cats. A few things to try: Don’t fill their bowl to the top and aim to feed more smaller meals throughout the day. You can also use puzzle balls that they bat around to get the food out.
Make sure you talk to your vet about proper serving sizes for your cat. And, try to incorporate exercise to get them moving. I’ve heard recently that lasers aren’t the best for cats.
Elizabeth: That’s true. When cats catch something physical, it releases serotonin in their brain, so they can get frustrated if they aren’t catching anything. My suggestion is if you play with a laser, switch it with a physical toy near the end so the cat can catch something.
I also recommend cat wheels because they’re amazing for exercise. Once trained, they’ll walk and run on them on their own.
Regarding diet, the only diet that worked for my big guy was a prescription diet, Royal Canin Satiety Support. It’s designed to blow up in their bellies and fill them up, while giving them all the necessary nutrients, so they don’t eat as much. My cat lost 5 lbs in 6 months.
Talk to your vet about that food and see if it’s an option. Although it’s around $50-60 a bag, you won’t go through it as fast as the over-the-counter food.
What do you do if your cat has dandruff?
Dr. Brooks: I usually recommend regularly brushing them and consider a food with extra fish oils like salmon-based food. You can also put some topical products on them to help, too. If their skin is otherwise healthy, it’s really just a cosmetic issue.
Elizabeth: I see it seasonally or with stress for my foster cats. For the most part it usually resolves on its own within about a week.
My cat is bigger and has a hard time cleaning his back. He had dirty fur at the base of the back. I washed him with a little Dawn and it seemed to work to clean the fur and remove the dandruff. Is that okay?
Elizabeth: Dandruff is actually from oil even though everyone thinks it’s from dryness, which is probably why the Dawn worked. That was a great idea, because it washed the oil away.
Also, if you ever have a cat or kitten that’s infested with fleas, coat them in Dawn for 10 minutes and it will suffocate the fleas. You can then pick them off and blow-dry the cat. It’s gross, but it’s the best way to kill them quickly.
Last Note on Feline Wellness
As we mentioned, kitties are very good at hiding illness, injury, and other ailments. The best things you can do is take them to routine vet visits, get blood work when necessary, and, most importantly, be observant.
Early detection is the key to battling acute or chronic illnesses, so be sure to flag any behavior that’s out of your cat’s normal routine, and you’ll give them the best chance at a long, healthy life.